Magazine article The Catholic World

The Adolescent 'Good Life': How It Affects Youth Ministry

Magazine article The Catholic World

The Adolescent 'Good Life': How It Affects Youth Ministry

Article excerpt

During the first week of 1990, Newsweek ran a cover story on "The 21st Century Family"--an issue worth perusing for anyone interested in ministering to today's generation of teens that follow the Generation Xrs. Those of us in the business of preparing children to face life after the year 2000 found one of Newsweek's observations about teens particularly interesting:

In the 80's, three out of four high school seniors were working an average of eighteen hours a week and often taking home more than $200 a month ... and earnings were immediately spent on cars, clothing, stereos, and other artifacts of the adolescent good life ...

In short, teenage employment has only intensified the adolescent drive for immediate gratification. Instead of learning how to delay desires, students are indulging in what University of Michigan researcher Jerald Bachman calls "premature affluence."

What was true in the eighties has actually intensified in the nineties. To youth ministers working with teenagers, Newsweek's findings tell a story we know from experience all too well. The heavy work schedules many teenagers maintain nowadays mean that few have time for CYO or youth groups, and even fewer can clear an entire weekend to go away on Antioch, Search, Crossroads or TEC retreats. What's more, their growing dependence on a weekly paycheck indicates the trend won't soon be reversing. Parish youth ministry has been affected dramatically.

When baby boomers came through high school, their sheer numbers and the economy were such that after-school jobs were pretty scarce. Quite the reverse is true today. Now employers, desperate for help, routinely offer as much as $6.50 an hour to fill what have always been minimum-wage jobs at places like KMart and McDonald's.

The result is plain to see on a stroll through any mall. Today's marketing strategies are aimed at this "teen prosperity." Who is parting with $145 to buy high-tech sneakers and $45 jeans? Today's kids spend money--and have it to spend--like never before.

Parents encourage their kids to go to work--some even insist--because the teen years have unfortunately become an expensive proposition: varsity jackets, school rings, prom bids, limo rentals for prom nights. The prices have soared beyond what many parents (and no single parent) can afford. If the kids can make $6.50 an hour at Shop-Rite, why let them sit home on the telephone or fall asleep in front of MTV?

And then, expenses have a way of making more expenses. Shuttling to and from work several days a week can be a big problem so kids need cars--a $1000 expense at least, and in that price range there will be plenty of repair bills to keep the kids working, even when they'd like to quit. Plus there is car insurance to be paid, and gas to buy, etc.

Sit down with a high school senior to add up the numbers for college finances and another reality stuns you: even those most intent on going to college are not saving any of these paychecks toward that monumental expense. They expect to do it all on credit. In short, we are cloning a generation whose idea of coming of age is Madison Avenue's dream-come-true: spend, spend, spend! The message of the nineties--that the extravagances of the eighties are no longer "in"--has not reached our teenagers. At fourteen, with their first legitimate working papers, they jump eagerly into the cycle of always wanting to buy a little more than what they are making, and they are off and running on the buy now, pay later treadmill.

Now shift scenes. A "very Catholic" family nowadays is one that goes to church once a week. Maybe for the first eight years their kids are in school, parents insist they attend weekly CCD classes and hop through the requisite hoops for the sacramental programs. At the end of all this comes Confirmation (read "graduation") after which both parents and child feel their obligation has been met.

Now enters youth ministry. …

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